In her 40s – author , songstress, actress, filmmaker – Madonna has influence and reach that may be global, but her base for family and friends is focused on and English country estate. Hamish Bowles talks to this ever-evolving force about her film and book, and the pleasures of commitment.
“Who would have thunk it?” says Madonna with a laugh. “The last thing I thought I would do is marry some laddish, shooting, pubgoing nature lover – and the last thing he thought he was going to do was marry some cheeky girl from the Midwest who doesn’t take no for an answer!”
In the warm ivory sanctuary of her office in her ambassadorial Georgian town house in London, Madonna is on the latest turn of the roller coaster that is her thrilling, adventuresome, and fecund life. The room, its walls expensively craquelure’d to resemble fractured eggshells, its pale taffeta curtains billowing in the chill English breeze, is more Hollywood boudoir than office. Propped against the fireplace, newly arrived from her rambling Wallace Neff-designed twenties hacienda in Los Angeles, sits Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey; Madonna wanted to enjoy it privately for a few days before it is sent off to Tate Modern as one of the stars of their blockbuster Kahlo retrospective. On the mantel, nestling between a brace of glamorous Francis Picabia portraits, is Kahlo’s traumatic My Birth. “She’s a bit shocking, that one,” says Madonna, who clearly does not shy from unsettling images. Elsewhere in this room is Helmut Newton’s photograph of a perfectly groomed glamazon with a large gun in her mouth, and on an art tour of the house, Madonna points out the photographer Collier Schorr’s life-size portrait of a beautiful flaxen-haired boy in Hitler Youth costume. “People don’t know what to think when they come here and see this photograph,” she tells me. “I’ll let them be… confused.” Does Madonna, who presented the prestigious Turner Prize at the Tate in December 2001 (where she introduced herself as Mrs. Guy Ritchie), collect Brit Art, too? “I have a Francis Bacon,” she says coyly. “Does that count?”
Speaking in carefully modulated tones, dressed with faux-bourgeois sobriety (this afternoon in Issa’s prim satin blouse with a print of flying ducks, black Kate Hepburn pants, and Marc Jacobs teal lizard shoes), a flotilla of charming, noiseless assistants close at hand and a courtly husband making polite but distracted small talk, she has the air of an Edwardian dollar princess – the moneyed American belles who were married off to impecunious British nobles in the golden age – and the fragile beauty and substantial real estate to match. But no one understands metamorphosis better than Madonna; she even named her 2004 tour “Re-Invention.” That tour is the subject of Madonna’s documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, directed by Jonas Akerlund and to be released later this year. In some ways the new movie is a pendant to 1991’s Truth or Dare, which a mellower Madonna now admits “in some ways is hard for me to watch. I was a very selfish person. You go through periods of your life where the world does revolve around you, but you can’t live your whole life that way. On the other hand, I kind of admire my spunk and directness!”
The new movie “starts with the struggle of a dancer trying to get into a show” and ends with Madonna’s controversial trip to Israel (to visit Rachel’s tomb as part of a Kabbalah experience) and a sweetly naive vision of peace in our time expressed in footage of a Palestinian and an Israeli boy walking together in friendship. “If I’m going to take people through a journey of my life, they are going to see all my journeys, and I hope they will also be moved by it,” she explains.
“The feeling in Israel is like no other place,” says Madonna. In Jerusalem she had “a sense of really going back in time… that I was being pulled into something. I felt very comfortable there. It’s weird; on the one hand it’s a very desperate place that could erupt at any time… it’s also very special – that’s why everyone wants to claim ownership of it. It’s not one of those places that beckon everybody, [but] I’m a bit of an excitement junkie.”
Aside from Jerusalem and its attendant dangers, Madonna’s movie takes you on an adventure to some of the key cities of her tour, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Dublin, and Paris among them – a giddy round of athleticism and lightning costume changes. For these cinematically inspired costumes, Madonna collaborated for the first time with Christian Lacroix, creating the armorial embroidered corsets that she adored. Meanwhile Karl Lagerfeld designed exquisite Weimar Kabaret-ish costumes (these ultimately proved too fragile to attach Madonna’s monitoring system to. “I was really bummed out because I loved what he did,” she says. “But I still have them – they might show up somewhere!”). Her friend Stella McCartney designed the “Savile Row three-piece-suit number.”